hen Kate Strayer-Benton arrived at a Boston nightclub last Wednesday night for a party for attendees of the BIO International Convention, she was expecting to see extravagant costumes. The annual party — called the Party At BIO Not Associated With BIO, or PABNAB for short — after all, has a reputation for bringing over-the-top themes and festivities to an industry networking event.
But Strayer-Benton was shocked and frustrated by what she saw: At least two topless women dancing on mini-stages, their bodies painted with logos of several of the companies that had sponsored the party.
In a photo that Strayer-Benton took at the event and shared with STAT, a dancer wears only a crown of flowers, a pair of boots, and bottoms resembling a bikini; her body is painted with the logo of the investment firm Alpha Blue Ocean on her abdomen and the biotech company Selexis on her right thigh.
“It felt like a line had so obviously been crossed,” said Strayer-Benton, director of strategy at Momenta Pharmaceuticals. “Objectifying women — in this case, even physically branding them with sponsorship of companies in our industry — it just felt so wrong.”
She wasn’t the only industry insider to take offense. Alnylam Pharmaceuticals CEO John Maraganore, who is chairman of the trade group that puts on the BIO conference, told STAT he was “horrified” to learn of the party. He said BIO is warning member companies that sponsored this year’s PABNAB that if they sponsor the event again in the future, they’ll be kicked out of the trade group.
This year’s party comes as the #MeToo movement has raised awareness not only about sexual harassment but also gender issues in the workplace.
It also comes 2.5 years after an infamous party on the sidelines of the J.P. Morgan conference in which investor relations firm LifeSci Advisors hired models in short dresses to socialize with guests at their reception, stirring widespread outrage. (LifeSci, to its credit, has been widely praised since for its efforts to try to help women in the industry advance in their careers.)
The website BioCentury first reported on the presence of topless dancers at this year’s PABNAB. Martina Molsbergen, CEO of a consulting group that co-organizes PABNAB, defended the event, telling BioCentury it was “edgy and artsy” and in keeping with the spirit of previous PABNAB parties. Molsbergen did not immediately return STAT’s emailed request for comment.
A spokesperson for Selexis said the company “has been a proud sponsor of the PABNAB party for years” but, this year, “had no prior knowledge that the logo was going to be used in that way.”
Alpha Blue Ocean didn’t know in advance, either, according to the firm’s CEO Pierre Vannineuse. He said he had been told his firm’s branding would be used on items like bracelets, flyers, and beverage glasses. “We just can’t have our name associated with such disgusting objectification of women,” Vannineuse said.
As its name suggests, PABNAB has no affiliation with the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, the trade group that puts on the official BIO conference every year. The annual party and others like it usually feature hired dancers and acrobats.
This is not the first time PABNAB has spurred controversy. At 2016’s iteration of the event in San Francisco, attendees partied with a live camel.
After the infamous LifeSci party at J.P. Morgan in 2016, two high-profile industry women — Kate Bingham, a managing partner at SV Health Investors, and Karen Bernstein, chair of BioCentury — initiated a widely circulated open letter calling on the industry to refuse to do business with companies that put on such parties.
Strayer-Benton had expected a similar outcry after last week’s PABNAB. When it didn’t materialize, she said, she decided to take action herself. She edited Bingham and Bernstein’s 2016 letter, making redlined changes to update details like the time and the location. She also changed the title, from “Time to Just Say No,” to “It’s Well Past the Time to Just Say No.” On Monday night, she sent that letter to Joanne Duncan, an executive at the trade group BIO, as well as to Bingham and Bernstein.
READ: The letter that Kate Strayer-Benton updated and sent to a BIO executive
“We can talk all we want about diversity on panels and in the boardroom, but when events like this are commonplace, I just think it undermines all the progress” being made by industry groups and drug companies, Strayer-Benton said. “I just think we take giant steps backwards when something like this is considered acceptable.”
Strayer-Benton’s letter set off a swift reaction inside the trade group BIO. At about 10 a.m. on Tuesday morning, the head of BIO’s committee on workforce development, diversity, and inclusion emailed the other committee members to inform them of what had happened at PABNAB. In the early afternoon on Tuesday, the committee members convened for an emergency phone call, where they made the decision to tell member companies they would no longer be welcome in BIO if they continued to sponsor PABNAB.
“We cannot stand for an event like that that is debasing and is frankly not consistent with our standards around inclusion,” Maraganore said.